Chapter I. The Arrival.
 

"Mamma," said Hildegarde Grahame, flying into her mother's room, "I have news for you, thrilling news! Guess what it is!"

Mrs. Grahame looked up from her sewing.

"The house is on fire," she said, quietly, "or you have found a Royal Walnut Moth; or, possibly, Hugh has developed wings and flown away. None of these things would greatly surprise me; but in the first case I must take action, while in either of the others I can finish this seam."

"Continue your prosaic labours!" said the girl. "The dress is mine, and I want it."

She sat down, and fanned herself with her broad straw hat. "It is hot!" she announced with emphasis.

"And that is the news?" said her mother. "Astonishing! I should never have guessed it, assuredly."

"Madam, you are a tease! The big yellow house is let, and the family is moving in today, at this moment! Now, how do you feel?"

"Much the same, thank you!" was the reply. "Slight acceleration of the pulse, with fever-flush; nothing more. But it is great news, certainly, Hilda. Do you know anything of the people?"

Hildegarde quoted:

    "'I saw them come; one horse was blind,
      The tails of both hung down behind,
      Their shoes were on their feet.'

"Mr. and Mrs. Miles Merryweather, six children, cook, housemaid and seamstress, two dogs, two cats (at least the basket mewed, so I infer cats), one canary bird, and fourteen trunks."

"Do I understand that Miss Grahame has been looking through the gap in the hedge?"

"You do, madam. And oh, mammina, it was such fun! I really could not help it; and no one saw me; and they came tumbling in in such a funny, jolly way! I rather think we shall like them, but it will be strange to have such near neighbours."

"I wonder what the Colonel will say!" Mrs. Grahame commented.

"He is pleased," said Hildegarde; "actually pleased. He knows Mr. Merryweather, and likes him; in fact, he has just been telling me about them."

"Hildegarde, you are becoming a sad gossip," said Mrs. Grahame, severely. "I think you would better sit down and work these buttonholes at once."

"So that I can repeat the gossip to you," said this impertinent young woman, kissing her mother lightly on the forehead. "Precisely, dear madam. Where is my thimble? Oh, here! Where are the buttonholes? Oh, there! Well, now you shall hear. And I fear I have been a gossip, indeed.

"It began with obedience to my elders and betters. You told me to go down and see how Mrs. Lankton's 'neurology' was; and I went. I found the poor old thing in bed, and moaning piteously. I am bound to say, however, that the moans did not begin till after I clicked the latch. It is frightful to see how suspicious a course of Mrs. Lankton always makes me. I went in, and the room was hermetically sealed, with a roaring fire in the air-tight stove."

"To-day!" exclaimed Mrs. Grahame; "the woman will die!"

"Not she!" said Hildegarde. "I was nearly suffocated, and protested, with such breath as I could find; but she said, 'Oh, Miss Grahame, my dear! you don't know anything about trouble or sickness, and no need to before your time. A breath of air, my dear, is like the bellers to my neurology--the bellers itself! Ah! I ain't closed my eyes, not to speak of, since you was here last.'

"I tried to convince her that good air was better than bad, since she must breathe some kind of air; but she only shook her head and groaned, and told me about a woman who got into her oven and shut the door, and stayed there till she was baked 'a beautiful light brown,' as Mrs. Lincoln says. ''T was a brick oven, dear, such as you don't see 'em nowadays; and she was cured of her neurology, slick and slap; but I don't never expect no such help of mine, now Mr. Aytoun's dead and gone. Not but what your blessed ma is a mother to me, and so I always tell the neighbours.'

"Do you want any more, missis? I can go on indefinitely, if you like. I stayed as long as I dared, and managed to hold the door open quite a bit, so that a little air really did get in; and I gave her the liniment, and rubbed her poor old back, and then gave her a spoonful of jelly, and ran. That is the first part of my tale. Then, I was coming home through the Ladies' Garden, and I found my Hugh playing Narcissus over a pool, and wondering whether freckles were dirt on his soul that came out in spots--the lamb! And I had to stay and talk with him a bit, and he was so dear! And then I walked along, and just as I came to the gap in the hedge, Mrs. Grahame, my dear madam, I heard the sound of a lawn-mower on the other side, and a man's voice whistling. This was amazing, and I am human, though I don't know whether you ever noticed it. I looked, I did; and so would others, if they had been there. A wagon stood at the back door, all piled with trunks and bags and baskets; I liked the look of the baskets, I can't tell exactly why. And at that very moment a carriage drove up, with two delightful brown horses, and a brown man who looked delightful, too, driving. I know it must be Mr. Merryweather, mammy, and I am sure we shall like him. Tall and straight and square, with clear blue eyes and broad shoulders; and handled his horses well, and-- what are you laughing at, Mrs. Grahame, if I may be permitted to ask?"

"I was only thinking that this charming individual was, in all probability, the coachman," said Mrs. Grahame, with mild malignity.

"Mamma!" cried Hildegarde, indignantly. "As if I didn't know a coachman when I saw him! Besides, the Colonel--but wait! Well, and then there was Mrs. Merryweather--stout and cheerful-looking, and I should think very absent-minded. Well, but, mother," seeing Mrs. Grahame about to protest, "she was dressed for driving, not to say travelling, and she--she had a pen behind her ear. She truly had!

"There were two big girls, and two big boys, and a little girl, and a little boy. I thought they all looked nice, and the girls were pretty, and one of the big boys was so full of fun he twinkled all over. A handsome boy, with red hair and dark blue eyes; but, oh, such a pity! his name is Obadiah, for I heard the other call him so. How can intelligent people call a boy Obadiah?"

She sewed for some minutes in silence, her needle darting in and out with thoughtful regularity, then went on.

"All the family seem to have strange names. The other boy is called Ferguson, and one girl is Toots, and another is Chucky. I detest nicknames; but these people all seemed so jolly, and on such good terms with each other, that I felt a sort of warming to them. The girl named Toots tumbled out of the wagon, and the others all laughed, and she laughed, too. She dropped everything she was carrying, and she was carrying a great deal,--a butterfly- net, and a mouse-trap, and three books, and a bandbox,--and everybody seemed to think that the best joke of all. One called her medicine dropper, and another drop-cake, and another dropped egg, and so on; and away they all went into the house, laughing and shouting and tumbling over each other. Such a jolly family. Mamma!"

"Yes, my dear," said Mrs. Grahame, very quietly, but without looking up.

"Nothing!" said Hildegarde. "You are an angel, that is all."

Mrs. Grahame sighed, and thought, as Hildegarde had been thinking, how good it would be to have many children, like a crown of sunbeams, about her; and thought of a little grave in Greenwood, where her only boy lay.

Presently she looked up with her usual bright smile.

"This is all very interesting, Hilda, and I fully sympathize with your feelings behind the hedge; but you have not told me how you came to know about our new neighbours. Did Colonel Ferrers join you at your peep-hole?"

"He did, mamma! He did just precisely that. I saw him coming along the road, swinging his stick, and frowning and humming to himself,--dear thing! And when he came near the house, and heard the voices, he stopped and looked, and began to go softly and slowly; so then I knew that he, too, wanted to see what was going on. So I slipped to the gate and beckoned to him, and he came in on tiptoe and joined me. Such fun we had,--just like two conspirators! He could see over my head, so we could both look at once; and he kept muttering scraps of information in my ear, so that it quite buzzed. Yes, I know you are shocked, dear madam, but it really could not be helped; and you said once to Jack--poor old Jack!--that his uncle was a criterion of gentle breeding and manners! So now, Mrs. Grahame!"

"Well," said Mrs. Grahame, "since matters are so, I may as well hear what my criterion had to say about our new neighbours. A pretty state of things, truly! the magnate and the maiden, spying through bushes on these unsuspecting strangers. Say on, unhappy girl!"

"Of course he said, 'Hum, ha!' first, a good many times; and we laughed at each other, under our breath, and were very happy. And then he said, 'Miles Merryweather, my dear! Excellent person! Heard he had taken the old house, but had no idea he was coming so soon. Eminent scientific man, manager of the new chemical works at Brompton, over yonder. Met him once, some years ago; glad to renew the acquaintance. Large family, I see, yes, yes; hum, ha! Boy about Hugh's age; inferior to him in intellect, my dear, I'll bet a--I should be tolerably certain. Astonishing lad, my Hugh! Ha! Mrs. Merryweather, presumably; literary, I hear, and that sort of thing. Don't care for literary people myself; prefer their books; but looks amiable. Pretty girl that, Hilda, my dear! the tall slip with the fair hair! Yes, yes! "A pretty girl's the noblest work of"--you remember? What's that? "An honest man," in the original? Now, will you hear this girl setting her elders to rights? I wonder what your mother was thinking of when she brought you up, young woman!' and so on, and so on, in his own delightful way. Really, mammina, from what he said, we are going to have a great acquisition to the little neighbourhood. We must call as soon as it would be in any way decent, mustn't we? Oh, but wait! I must tell you the end. We had been so interested in watching the children, and in seeing them go tumbling down and up into the house, that we had lost sight of Mr. Merryweather himself. I suppose he must have driven round to the stable and left the horses there; for suddenly, almost in our ears, we heard a deep voice saying, 'A fine hedge, but needs clipping badly; we must set the boys to work in the morning.' We started back as if we had been shot. Colonel Ferrers turned purple, and I felt every colour in the rainbow flooding my cheeks. We made sure we had been seen or heard, and I think Colonel Ferrers was on the point of stepping forward like a soldier, and apologizing; but I held his arm for a moment, in pure cowardice, and the next moment we saw Mr. and Mrs. Merryweather, arm in arm, gazing calmly at the hedge, and evidently unconscious of any guilty crouchers on the other side. Oh, mammy! if you could have seen us stealing away, how you would have laughed. The Colonel is not very light, you know, bless him! and to see him mincing along on the tips of his dear toes, scarcely daring to draw breath, still purple with embarrassment and suppressed laughter, and looking over his shoulder at every step, as if he expected to see Mr. Merryweather come bursting through the hedge in pursuit,--oh, it was too funny! When we got round the corner we both sat down on the steps and giggled, like two infants; and then he said he was deeply ashamed of me, and bade me go in and make confession to you for both of us. So now I have done it, dear madam, and you are to forgive all our sins, negligences and ignorances, please, and the Colonel is coming to tea, with his compliments."